As the Oscars ceremony approaches this Sunday (February 26), we thought it’d might be helpful to turn back the clock 10 years and see how the Academy’s choices stood the test of time, and see if there were any trends or ideas we could glean from their past mistakes. So, once you read up on our predictions for the upcoming 89th Academy Awards, let’s head back to 2007 and make you feel incredibly old by telling you that The Departed won that year.
Yes, The Departed came 10 years ago. Good lord.
To say the least, 2006 had been a very odd year for American cinema, full of directors making awkward, potentially misunderstood, passion projects that either failed miserably with audiences or with the general consensus (see: Marie Antoinette, The Fountain, A Prairie Home Companion, Idlewild, The Black Dahlia, Miami Vice, Scoop, and many, many more) and abounding with the same cheap and ugly cash grabs each studio is guilty of releasing for a quick buck each year.
It was a year of bloat, as well — five of the top grossing films of the year clocked in just under or right above two-and-a-half hours, perhaps the delayed effect of The Lord of the Rings trilogy on studio thinking — and sequel fever (six of the those aforementioned top 10 being sequels) replaced the “remake craze” that had taken 2005 by storm. Finally, the terrible events of September 11, 2001, made their way to cinemas, with Oliver Stone’s painfully restrained World Trade Center underwhelming audiences everywhere, and Paul Greengrass’ United 93 receiving positive reviews amidst questions about its very existence. Al Gore suddenly became the most popular documentary subject in the U.S., and An Inconvenient Truth made a stupid amount of money.
Still, there were bright spots, including the resuscitation of the James Bond franchise in the still-surprisingly great Casino Royale, Spike Lee’s terrific Inside Man, the James Gunn-helmed cult horror gem Slither, and, finally, two out-and-out masterpieces, Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men and Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, coming near the end of the year. Many hoped for Cuaron to at least get a Best Picture nomination, given that it seemed Del Toro all but had the Best Foreign Film award locked up and the Academy’s distaste for double-dipping into those categories, and many were shocked and pissed when it failed to make the cut in any category except for Best Cinematography. Likewise, given that it won the Golden Globe for Best Musical or Comedy, one might have expected Dreamgirls, the adaptation of the Broadway musical, to have received a nod, but it too was left out in the cold, despite receiving a whopping eight nominations for other acting and technical awards. The Academy was still one giant billion-dollar Bat-success away from expanding the field of nominees, so who knows? Those films, most definitely having the bona fides to justify a nomination, might have been included after all.
Chosen were five films, a bizarre mixture of good and deeply mediocre, most of which you’d be hard-pressed to remember even came out that year. The nominees were: Little Miss Sunshine, the road-trip dark comedy about a dysfunctional family trying to take their daughter to a child beauty pageant; The Queen, Stephen Frears’ continuation of his Michael Sheen-as-Tony-Blair cinematic universe that boasted one hell of a Helen Mirren performance; Letters from Iwo Jima, the surprisingly sensitive and beautiful Clint Eastwood film, a Japanese-centered compliment to his adaptation of Flags of Our Fathers; the all-things-are-connected and deeply overrated ensemble film Babel; and Martin Scorsese’s remake of the Korean crime thriller Infernal Affairs, renamed The Departed, which would ultimately — spoiler alert! — take home the gold.
Ten years later, it’s hard for me to argue against the choice the Academy made. Letters from Iwo Jima, while perhaps the most complicated and interesting of the bunch (and which features a truly devastating performance from Ken Watanabe that should have been considered for Best Actor), doesn’t work as well without its lesser companion piece accompanying it, and was also potentially dicey choice given the political climes of the moment (could you imagine the collective conservative heart attack that a film made about Japanese soldiers in World War II winning Best Picture would have caused?). Perhaps it’s for the best that Eastwood walked away empty handed, as one of his best films was left untouched by the stupid controversies, scrutinies and second-guessing that come with a big win. The Queen, while an impressive work on the part of the fabulous Mirren, ultimately suffered from a weird parodial aspect that undercuts the seriousness of the film itself, and worked better when it was adapted for the stage as The Audience. That way, the focus remained exclusively on her incredible focus, without the distractions brought on by a clumsy script and bland direction from Frears. If anything, The Queen has finally become eclipsed by Frears’ work on the Netflix series The Crown, where his talents as a director are highlighted by the period setting and isn’t overshadowed by a performance as scene-stealing as Mirren’s.
Little Miss Sunshine is more notable now for the doors that it opened for some its cast members and its screenwriter than the movie’s quality itself. Steve Carell, Paul Dano, Bryan Cranston, and Dean Norris all went on to much better things, and Dano would find himself back at the ceremony the following year for his work in Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood. Michael Arndt, who won Best Original Screenplay for his work on this film, would later go on to write another Best Picture nominee, Toy Story 3, and also work on the first drafts of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Hell, even Alan Arkin parlayed his Best Supporting Actor Oscar win into steady work (despite killing off Eddie Murphy’s attempt at a “serious acting” comeback by robbing him of a chance to win for his work in Dreamgirls). It looks more and more like Little Miss Sunshine has become a cautionary tale: perhaps it’s not always best to be the first of your kind to make it through the door. Soon, the Quirky Indie Comedy became a fixture at the multiplex and in the awards circuit, each more memorable and better crafted than the last, and Sunshine just doesn’t have the staying power. Though it has a truly fantastic ending, it’s not nearly as memorable as something like Diablo Cody’s Juno, and left even less of a lasting cultural impact.
Babel, it seems, owned the future, though at the time it just looked like a great way to squander a lot of excellent actors (Cate Blanchett, Brad Pitt, Michael Peña, Clifton Collins Jr., Gael Garcia Bernal, nominee Rinko Kikuchi) in service of a middling story that the director and screenwriter had already worn through two times prior. Combined with the astonishing leaps of logic and the chance that it takes to make the film’s muddled central premise work, the few beautiful moments in this movie (mainly all of Kikuchi’s story, who really deserved her nod here but, unlike eventual winner Jennifer Hudson, at least she had a real career afterwards) are totally fucking suffocated by dumb choices. Though he’d walk home totally empty-handed for his efforts at that particular Oscars, director Alexander G. Iñárritu would be back with a vengeance eight years later with the perfect storm, having learned all of the right lessons for getting a statue but all the wrong ones for making a compelling and lasting masterwork. It all came to a head in Birdman, a Hollywood-centric circlejerk just as vapid and as stupid as this movie was but with an extra veneer of “arthouse” that covered up all the cracks that were obvious in Babel when it was up for the award. Of course it won Best Picture, and of course his follow-up The Revenant would be lauded in a similar fashion, though it’d ultimately lose the big contest to Spotlight.
Much like in 2015, the Boston-centric film proved to be the dark horse victor, though we have an odd feeling that we’ll be talking (globally) more about The Departed 20 years from now. While it may not have the same highs as Taxi Driver or Goodfellas or Raging Bull, it’s hard to think of another Scorsese movie more suited to the Academy’s tastes (We’d argue Last Temptation of Christ deserved the honor, but the political firestorm that movie caused would have made an Oscar campaign useless), and it isn’t handicapped by the flaws that any of his earlier non-canon nominated works feature — no Cameron Diaz, no garish spectacle or stunt casting to undermine the story. It’s really one hell of a propulsive ride, filled to the brim with fun performances, intrigue, action, and what maybe the last Jack Nicholson performance in which he actually gives a shit about doing a good job (though the upcoming Toni Erdmann remake might prove me wrong there). It’s a lot of fun, especially for a seemingly stuffy ceremony.
If the Academy’s ultimate purpose is to select a good film each year, worthy of its inclusion in the lofty league of Oscar Winners, there are plenty worse choices they could have made. In addition, the notion that this movie received accolades from the Academy as an apology to Scorsese for not awarding him sooner is a silly one, and the people who think so should go back and sit through Babel or Little Miss Sunshine again. You’ll be missing the competent direction and the dropped Rs, believe me. In fact, the lesson that should be learned from all this is that sometimes, the right movie wins.
Follow Nick Johnston on Twitter @onlysaysficus, and follow @Vanyaland617 through #VOscars as our team live-tweets the Oscars as it unfolds Sunday night.